Navigating Analytics Professions as a Woman: 4 Lessons from Meta Brown

Contributed by Grace Shrader

The University of Chicago Women in Analytics committee recently met with Meta Brown, data analyst, consultant, and author of the book Data Mining for Dummies. She shared her insider knowledge from working in the field, as well as practical advice for women at work.

Here are a few of the things we learned:

  1. Nearly half of all analytics professionals are women.
  2. Developing a personal brand helps others help you.
  3. Knowing the literature and documenting personal accomplishments can give women more influence in the work environment.
  4. Women find motivation in context.
  1. Nearly half of all analytics professionals are women.

The founding of Women in Analytics at the University of Chicago was in part motivated by our observation that there are disproportionately fewer women than men in the University of Chicago’s Master of Science in Analytics graduate program. We assumed that low participation of women was a theme across analytics as a field. Not so, says Meta. In fact, in analytics-related fields such as math and statistics, the numbers of men and women are close to equal. But it turns out we were not alone in our assumption, as stated in Meta’s SmartData Collective article describing the data behind women’s presence in analytical fields. So what perpetuates this myth of gender imbalance in analytics? Speaking from personal experience, Meta described attending analytics conferences in which the audience was 50% female, but the speaker panel was 100% male. So one reason for the misconception may be that despite equal participation, there is unequal representation of women in public roles such as speaking positions and leadership.   That is, maybe the women just don’t get as much publicity, so it produces the illusion of gender imbalance. If that’s the case, how do we address it? Meta had suggestions for that as well.

  1. Developing a personal brand helps others help you.

Meta emphasized the importance of taking action to establish your brand. This may seem like an obvious career-building step to many people, but the truth is that women often cringe at the thought of developing a personal brand (see the article “Women and Personal Branding: Oil and Water?”). If others in your field know about you and your work, Meta pointed out, then they will come to you to help you achieve your career goals. She gave some specific tips for getting started with personal branding:

  • Leverage your unique personality to develop a work-related niche that interests you.
  • Contribute articles on topics in that niche to editorial sites (e.g., SmartData Collective, AllAnalytics) or write a blog post for a commercial organization (but require pay and check that they don’t claim all copyrights). If you’re new to writing, set goals: Meta suggests shooting two articles a month. And when writing, use as much context as possible. This makes the articles more understandable, more relevant to readers, and more fun to write.
  • As for your public bio and photo, make them professional. Don’t call yourself a student; rather, in your blurb describe what you want to be in your next job.
  • Other ways to build a personal brand include social networking, groups with which you are involved, and speaking engagements.

Certainly, establishing a personal brand is one strategy for increasing a woman’s publicity and influence in her field. But what other actions can facilitate women’s underrepresented influence in the workplace? Meta said: use data.

  1. Knowing the literature and documenting personal accomplishments can give women more influence in the work environment.

Women can experience subtle sexism in their day-to-day work that discourages equality in pay, expectations, and treatment. To combat this, Meta suggested using what we know best: data. For example, to gain support for equal treatment in the workplace, she advised knowing and citing the numbers for women in analytics. Also, she recommended keeping a personal log of accomplishments at work to use as evidence when a woman believes she deserves a promotion. When one of us brought up that women could be more supportive toward one another in the workplace, Meta offered the motto, “Let there be better interactions among women, and let them begin with me.”

  1. Women find motivation in context.

If women are to truly grow more empowered professionally, the conversation about gender differences needs to move beyond how women can achieve a better work/life balance. A next step is a conversation around the specific strengths that women contribute at work. Meta described one of those attributes: that women tend to crave applications in the sciences. For example, notice how there are so few women in, say, a high school A.P. Physics course, but a large majority of students in the A.P. Biology class are women. Women’s presence in computing fields has long been in decline, and one reason may be a lack of context. This Association for Computing Machinery’s article on this decline cites a computer science professor who found that contextualizing computing actually led to higher female enrollment in computer science courses. Understanding the distinctions between what motivates men and motivates women, we can find synergy and strength in complementarity.

Meta, thank you for sharing these insights! We’re excited to use them to help women make analytics thrive.

Lunch with Meta